Week of October 11, 2019

Mr. May in agony. Sweet, sweet agony.


The NBA and China: To Paraphrase Tupac: It Isn’t About East and West. It’s About Power and Money. Riders and Chumps. Which Side Are You On?

So, the NBA. What a week, huh? Rockets GM Daryl Morey started an international incident by tweeting support for protesters in Hong Kong. The Rockets owner quickly distanced himself from Morey’s tweet; Morey deleted the tweet and said he made the tweet without understanding the issues; China and Chinese companies have all but banned the Rockets in China, wiping away a history that is long, dating back to 2002, when the team drafted Yao Ming.

To understand all this, we should first understand what the protests are about because it’s important. The protests in Hong Kong began a few months ago in response to a law proposed by the Hong Kong government in response to a gruesome crime: the murder of Poon Hiu-wing allegedly by her boyfriend Chan Tong-kai. The murder occurred in Taiwan, where the two Hong Kong residents were visiting. Chan Tong-kai escaped to Hong Kong. Hong Kong does not have an extradition treaty with Taiwan, because China does not recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty. 

The law would allow Hong Kong authorities to extradite persons wanted in outside countries with which Hong Kong does not currently have extradition agreements, including Taiwan and mainland China. Opponents of the proposed law do not want China included, for fear that the Chinese government would use it to quell pro-Democracy political opponents. So, they protested. And the protests have widened into bigger concerns about China’s aims to erode the “one country, two systems” arrangement in place since the United Kingdom handed control of Hong Kong back to China in 1997. 

Ok, back to the Morey story. In the aftermath of the Tweet, the NBA tried and miserably failed to walk a tightrope between supporting its employee’s right to express his opinions and the league’s billions of dollars of interest in China. As Brian Phillips sums up the aftermath:

The Chinese Basketball Association formally suspended its relationship with the Rockets. With the NBA’s preseason Global Games underway—including two games in China this week—Rockets merchandise disappeared from Chinese e-commerce platforms, and Chinese telecom companies stopped showing Rockets games. The NBA released an incoherent response, in English, that said all it wanted to do was bring people together; then a more sternly incoherent version appeared on the league’s Chinese social media account, in Mandarin, that said the NBA was extremely disappointed in Morey’s inappropriate tweet and all it wanted to do was bring people together.

The whole thing is an absolute sh-t show, but I thought this Phillips attacked the NBA’s hypocrisy the best. As the lede says, this story “might look like a complicated story of accidental cultural conflict brought about through deep geopolitical nuance. It isn’t. It’s just another nasty little farce about money and power.” Phillips thesis is more or less as follows:

The Chinese government does not care what Daryl Morey thinks about Hong Kong. I doubt many people in the league office sincerely think Morey’s tweet was morally wrong—as opposed to strategically foolish—or that the protesters are mistaken to be concerned about China’s encroachments on the “one country, two systems” policy by which Hong Kong has been governed since 1997. But it suits the interests of the government to force a popular American sports franchise to performatively legitimize its actions in Hong Kong. And it suits the financial interests of the Rockets and the league to capitulate to the demands of the government, because not capitulating would make it harder for them to fulfill the deepest dream of all sports owners: make enough money to buy a private island, then move to that island and do favors for its authoritarian government in return for tax breaks.

There’s nothing edifying about any of this, except to the extent that it’s a useful reminder of where we are. We’re in a world where global capital feels perfectly comfortable teaming up with communist autocrats against democracy activists, as long as it keeps the cash registers dinging. Generally speaking, the hypocrisy of sports owners feels more depressing than the hypocrisy of other tycoon varietals, because sports owners represent a product that you’d like to believe has a meaning surpassing commerce. This is especially true about the NBA, because the NBA is so proud of its social conscience, or at least it was before its social conscience started threatening to cost it money.

For the most part, though, you’ll never be surprised if you assume that the devotion of sports owners to their own self-interest, and of sports leagues to their owners’ self-interest, is absolute. The NBA wants you to see it as politically progressive to the precise extent that your seeing it as progressive helps the bottom line and no further. Tilman Fertitta, the Rockets’ owner, occasionally goes on CNBC to praise Donald Trump, from whom he bought an Atlantic City casino in 2011, and to say things like “Obamacare does not work.” He has no problem then turning around and declaring that the Rockets are a “non-political organization” to make nice with China, because what he means by “non-political organization” is that he thinks hundred-dollar bills are nice, and also fuck you.

Ooooooooh daaaaaang. Fire.

I also wanted to point out the hypocrisy of new Nets owner Joseph Tsai, a Taiwanese-Canadian. Tsai, who made his fortune as the co-founder of Alibaba Group, posted a long message on Facebook, condemning Morey’s tweet and seemingly attempting to scare any other players or executives from wading into these waters:

What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion? This freedom is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues.

The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities.

Wow. In other words. “Freedom of expression is great… unless it upsets people and possibly costs me money.” Which, of course, is not freedom at all. And as Phillips points out, Tsai’s letter “somehow made the feelings of Hong Kong’s citizens seem less important to the question of Hong Kong’s governance than the feelings of Chinese people outside Hong Kong.”

What seems especially dumb about the NBA is this: first, their attempts to appease the Chinese have failed. So they’ve laid bare their fake commitment to progressivism and letting their employees speak this minds, and they’ve lost money. 

I also think the NBA underestimates its power here. The NBA is wildly popular in China. If the NBA supported Morey and the Chinese government tried to ban the NBA, there would be a few hundred million NBA fans angry they could no longer watch. NBA: Trust your product! Instead, it looks weak, kowtowing to the Chinese government, and losing credibility domestically. Dumb. -TOB

Source: The NBA’s Convenient “Non-political” Stance Comes at a Cost”, Brian Phillips, The Ringer (10/07/2019)

PAL: I appreciated the perspective from Sopan Dep of The NY Times: 

The tweet put the league in a situation familiar to many global companies seeking to do business in a Communist country with 1.4 billion people: Any misstep could mean swiftly losing access to a powerful economy.

China Central Television, the state broadcaster, made clear the risks of challenging Beijing, chiding the league for an earlier expression of support for Morey’s free speech rights.

The NBA knew there were going to be some murky ethical waters in China decades before a friggin’ general manager tweeted, and they knew the Chinese market was massive. Show me a time when a multi-billion dollar business came free of ethical and political dilemmas.

The only thing that changed this week is Morey’s tweet made it so the NBA and the rest of us couldn’t ignore the concessions the NBA made in pursuit of globalization. Things will go back to normal in no time.


The Loneliest Man In Sports

Watching Clayton Kershaw cough up the yet another Dodgers post-season*, I wondered if there’s any lonelier position in sports than a relief pitcher, a guy literally standing on a tiny island with the fate of a season gripped in his hand. Maybe a goalie in a shootout situation (hockey or soccer). How about a gymnast participating in a team all-around competition?

In order for a player to feel lonely, I think they need to be a part of a team sport; a golfer or a swimmer doesn’t feel lonely because he/she is pretty much always alone in competition. 

And then I thought of the kicker on a football team. Is there any position in team sports more segregated from the rest of the team? Hell, the kicker on a football team doesn’t even look like a football player. If he makes the field goal, he’s done his the baseline of his job; if he misses, he’s the reason the team loses. Miss a couple field goals, and the team is looking for anyone – literally anyone – who can kick. Football, Rugby. Soccer. It doesn’t matter.. Can you imagine if a highly recruited QB is replaced after missing 4 throws in a row? 

With all of this in mind, I share Tashan Reed’s in depth look at the Aguayo brothers. First Roberto and now Ricky have been the starting kicker for Florida State since 2013. 

Here’s what I love about this story: 

I’m a sucker for brother stories

To have a brother to share such a lonely experience is incredibly compelling. It’s one thing to confide in your holder, but to be able to call a brother who understands every synapse of your experience. 

The fragility of the position

Miss 5 of 10, and you’re likely out of a job, be it pros or college. In Ricky’s case, go 1 for 5, and the wolves are closing in this season (another kicker was sent in for the field goal in the most recent game, as of publication of this story). Add that to a less than sterling 2018 (11/17), and Ricky’s got a problem, special teams captain or otherwise. 

Kicking isn’t football, but it determines so many outcomes. Or how about the absurd speciality of kicking in relation to the rest of football. The disparity of skill sets between that position and every other on the team is comical. Get this: after Roberto showed some real talent high school, he went to the Kohl’s Professional Camps, a specialty camp for kickers. But it’s a bit more important than just a kicking camp.

Per Reed: 

Soon after, Roberto received an invitation from Kohl’s Professional Camps. Today, 99.2 percent of FBS teams have a kicker, punter or long snapper from Kohl’s Kicking. The coaches who ran the camps told Roberto they believed he could make it to the league one day.

99.2%? This should be the pitch for a Netflix doc about placekickers. 

This part of football is completely sequestered, and yet, how many of the most important games are determined by 3 points or less?

So you have all these factors only reinforcing isolation within a team sport. Hell, kickers only get one – maybe two – of the 16 sessions (whatever the hell a session means in terms of time or reps) within a practice. That means they are on the field with the rest of the team for at best 13% of the time. 

All that time alone on the side fields can leave a man with his thoughts. Left to his own devices, Ricky has developed some of his own tactics, informed by Roberto’s struggles in the NFL: 

As Roberto struggled through his first NFL season, he depended on his parents and his wife, Courtney. But his brother could relate on a different level. The older brother elaborated on what he should’ve done better. He pointed out how an adjustment to his plant foot or his follow-through on kicks could’ve led to fewer misses. The corrections were minuscule, but those talks opened Ricky’s eyes to their importance.

“It made me pay attention to more detail,” Aguayo says. “When he was here, he wasn’t really worried because everything was going good with his kick. It kind of put it into perspective, OK, well, why ain’t I doing this?’ He’s paying attention to that much detail, well, let me do the same thing to try to be better as well.”

Each time he practices, Aguayo videos at least one of his attempts. He also takes three pictures — before he starts his approach, at the point of impact and on his follow-through — and he hangs them on his wall. He looks at them at least five times a day. The purpose of this technique, which he learned from Roberto, is to know exactly what his swing looks like so he can visualize it at any moment.

Visualizing is essential for kickers to perform well in extreme situations. Unlike other positions, where a player can build upon positive experiences throughout the course of a game, kickers get that opportunity far less often and under much more intense focus.

Let’s not forget: more than any other position in football, kickers score points. Every single one of the top 20 point leaders in NFL history are kickers. Sure, a QB who throws a touchdown doesn’t get six points – only the receiver does, but still…you’d think kickers would get a bit more respect when the contribute more points in a game in which, you know, points are used to determine winners and losers. 

A fascinating examination of brotherhood, isolation, and the fleeting nature of sport. – PAL 

Source: “The precarious life of the placekicker: Inside the head of Florida State’s Ricky Aguayo with his career on the line”, Tashan Reed, The Athletic (10/09/19) 

* It’s OK to respect Kershaw and hate the Dodgers at the same time, right?

TOB: Yes, of course, Mr. May should get his due.


The Braves Experience Instant Karma

The first World Series I really remember was 1991 World Series between the Twins and the Braves. It was a notable World Series, because it was a 7-game classic that went to extras in Game 7, but also in part because the two fanbases had a “thing”: Twins fans whipped around those white hankies, and Braves fans did the “Tomahawk Chop” with an accompanying chant. The Tomahawk Chop was new to Braves fans, as some report that it came to the Braves with Deion Sanders, the former Florida State star. FSU fans had been doing the chant/chop since the mid-80s. But it’s not 1991 anymore, and as a society we are moving away, finally, from blatantly offensive things, like the Tomahawk Chop. Unless you’re the Braves.

During this year’s NLDS, the Braves faced the St. Louis Cardinals. Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley is part Cherokee, and during the series he expressed his feeling that the chop is deeply offensive, and he wished the Braves would stop. Halsley is not the first person who has said this over the years. But hearing a player says it got most thinking people to say, “Hm, yeah, this is long overdue.” So, the Braves thought it over and did away with the Tomahawk Chop. What a great story!

I’m kidding, they didn’t do that. They did the opposite. Instead, minutes before the deciding Game 5 in Atlanta, the Braves announced the following: they would “reduce” the Tomahawk Chop by (1) not passing out foam Tomahawks before the game, as they had before Games 1 nd 2; and (2) not use the musical prompt for the Tomahawk Chop when Halsley is on the mound. 

I mean, FFS. Why is this so hard? The team cannot force Braves fans to stop doing the chop, of course. But they could strongly discourage fans from doing it, and they could cease the musical prompt, period. 

Remember, this announcement came just minutes before the start of Game 5. And then the game started, Braves fans starting doing the chop immediately, and here’s the first inning went for them:

10-0 before Atlanta even went to bat. LOLOLOL. I was listening to the whole thing on the Braves radio broadcast, and I felt like Cartman licking Scott Tenorman’s tears. 

Instant karma, baby. Do bad things, bad things happen. -TOB


Sports is Reveling in Your Rival’s Failure

The Dodgers have won the NL West seven straight years. The Dodgers made the World Series the last two years. The Dodgers won 106 games this year (that’s a lot of games). But they will head into 2020 still having not won the World Series since I was 6 years old, in 1988. Glorious.

One of the best things about sports is taking joy in your rival’s failure. No, the Giants didn’t make the playoffs this year (though I believe glory days will return soon), and haven’t since 2016. So my October, for the third straight year, was instead focused on rooting for #AnyoneButDodgers. Luckily, this year, I didn’t have to wait long, as the Nats bounced the Dodgers in the winner-take-all Game 5 on Wednesday night.

My wife and I went to a concert that night. We stopped for dinner before, and I was able to watch the game at the restaurant. When we had to leave, the Dodgers led 3-1, and former ace Clayton Kershaw had just come in relief for new ace Walker Buehler, with the go ahead run at the plate, and two outs in the 7th inning. Kershaw, whose playoffs struggles are long (and at this point statistically significant – he’s pitched 150+ postseason innings and his postseason ERA is nearly double his regular season ERA, sitting at over 4.50). Kershaw struck out Eaton to end the threat. DAMN.

We got to the Fillmore and as we waited for Ingrid Michaelson to begin, I followed along with my phone. Kershaw came back out for the 8th to face possible NL MVP Anthony Rendon, and Nats’ phenom Juan Soto. How’d it go, Clayton?

Dinger. Dinger. LOLLLLLLLLLL. I laughed and laughed. Of course, the game wasn’t over. It was tied at 3. In the bottom of the 9th, Dodgers catcher Will Smith juuuuuuust missed a game winning home run. But he did miss it. And in the 10th, the Nats loaded the bases with no outs, and Howie Kendrick came up and hit a grand slam to center. WOO!

When we got home, I spent some time on Giants twitter, laughing at all the best burns. Here’s a selection:

Celebrating your team’s win is the best; but second best is laughing at your rival when they repeatedly get hit in the face with a rake.

I can now sleep easy…until October 2020. -TOB


People Can’t Resist Messing Up A Good Thing

If you were ever looking for the steps on how to take an altruistic idea and completely botch it, look no further than the 9th Ward Field of Dreams New Orleans. People are the worst sometimes, and it’s important for good writing to capture that. Good grief.

Long story short: Hurricane Katrina decimated the 9th Ward. Even prior to the disaster, none of the high schools in Desire area of New Orleans had a home football field. A young Teach for America educator, Brian Bordianick, saw that a football field could represent a reinvestment – not only of money but pride – in the community. The grassroots campaign gained momentum. Before long, who’s who of New Orleans were getting involved. 

Per Jeff Duncan, Lee Zurik and Cody Lillich:

The grassroots campaign took off and garnered donations from the likes of Drew Brees, James Carville, Sean Payton and Alyssa Milano. The feel-good story became a symbol for New Orleans’ recovery and attracted nationwide publicity, even earning a mention from President Barack Obama in his 2010 speech to commemorate the 5-year anniversary of the storm.

It’s been six years since city officials conducted the groundbreaking ceremony for the stadium. It’s been four years since officials publicly announced the field would be named in honor of Marshall Faulk, a Pro Football Hall of Fame running back and former Carver standout.

Today, no stadium has been built. An empty grass field sits on the proposed stadium site. And more than $1 million in donations and pledges are gone.

What the hell happened? They had the money. They had a driver in Bordianick, they the donation of services from architectural firms and contractors. They had everything needed to build a stadium, and yet the site remains a parking lot with weeds towering out of asphalt cracks. 

By 2011, they had 1.2MM in donations, plus hundreds of thousands in service donations. Also at that time, there was a push for a charter group to run the school The locals weren’t interested. Divisiveness grew between the school and the community. Bordianick tried to show good faith to the community by adding another board seat to the organization for a community leader. Things began to unfurl from there. At some point the Field of Dreams became multiple things to multiple people.

After years of fundraising and planning with a local architectural firm, complete with some last-minute concessions to come in at budget, Bordianick and the firm had a field plan ready for construction at 1.3MM. They nixed the track, bathrooms, and concessions from phase 1, but they thought a proof of concept would be the best way to convince the public for additional funds to build out the stadium with all the original bells. 

However, members of the board saw it differently: 

Some members of the Field of Dreams board, though, had another plan. They saw vast potential in the stadium project and wanted to expand its scope rather than reduce it. They wanted to manage the stadium and make it a for-profit venture for the community, according to Ripple. Consequently, they proposed a grander project, one that would cost $2.8 million.

Bordainick was fundamentally opposed to delaying the project any further. He thought about the donors he’d pitched and the kids he’d inspired along the way. If construction didn’t begin soon, he worried that the project would stall and never get off the ground. He feared there would be a “lost generation” of local youths with no positive outlets in the community if the stadium were not built as quickly as possible.

It was precisely after reading these to paragraphs when I started shaking my head. Eventually, Bordianick bounced, and Betty Washington was, for some reason, called on to replace him. Not smart. Aside from her felony tax and bankruptcy fraud, her legal licence was suspended. Oh, and she also demanded a 5K per month salary for acting as executive director. Executive Director or what, I do not know. Construction never began. Grants were reallocated. Fundraising all but stopped. 

In the time that Brian Bordianick began this idea in 2008 and 2016, a 50MM+ Carver High School has been built. It sits alongside the site of the 1.5MM dollar athletic field that remains a parking lot. If you didn’t know the backstory, you might think that building a new school before a new field makes sense, but nothing about this story makes sense. It just challenges your faith in people.- PAL 

Source: “What happened to New Orleans Field of Dream and its $1 million in donations?”, Jeff Duncan, Lee Zurik and Cody Lillich, The Athletic w/ WVUE-TV in New Orleans


Video of the Week


Tweet of the Week


Song of the Week – Ringo Starr – “Photograph”


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Dad, go to hell. I’m taller than you!

-Drew Bernard

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